Thursday, October 3, 2013

High Peaks History: The 1913 Fire at Chapel Pond

Putnam Camp 1913 Fire AftermathOne hundred years ago this September the Keene Valley faced the second massive fire to threaten it from the south since the dawn of the young century.  The irrepressible artist Harold Weston, then a young man of nineteen, was on the front lines along with his family; his father, secretary of Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) at the time, was chief adviser to the Army platoon that President Woodrow Wilson had sent to help fight the fires.

In his collection Freedom in the Wilds Weston recounts the progress of the fire up the ridge of Noonmark and over the southern part of Round Mountain to Chapel Pond as crews of men, pressed beyond the point of exhaustion, tried to stop it with fire lines and back fires set at the edges of the 1903 fire’s advance.

As Weston relates, the fire line on the northern edge of Round Mountain held, but just as had happened in 1903 the fire jumped the road at Chapel Pond Pass to the shoulder of Rocky Peak Ridge and began to ascend towards  Giant.  His vivid of the description of the fire raging above Chapel Pond deserves reproduction:

Clouds of smoke darkened the sky, increasing the dramatic effect of the light from the flames on the cliffs above the pond.  Some trees were breaking off and plummeting into the the water.  Suddenly, sharp but deep reverberations sounded above the crackling and roaring of the fire.  They were explosions of rock, deprived of its water by crystallization on account of the intense heat.  These explosions blew off small pieces of hot rock, which sent up little clouds of steam as they hit the water.  It seemed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

Standing between the approaching fire and the expanse of Keene Valley lay Putnam Camp.  A unique and historically significant place, Putnam Camp itself is fascinating story and an integral part of the history of the Keene Valley and St. Huberts dating back to the late nineteenth century.  For our purposes today its records hold contemporary descriptions of the fire along with striking photographs of the aftermath.   I would like to publicly thank Bill Joplin for opening these archives to me.

Putnam Camp’s archives contain an account of the fire more personal and moving than Weston’s, in prose as accomplished.  Remarkably it was written by a sixteen year old girl, Frances Putman, there for the summer.  Upon her return to school in Boston she wrote a composition entitled Three Weeks Among the Fires which was published in the school newsletter.

Apparently Harold Weston and the company of men and soldiers fighting the fire were not the only people to walk up up the road the view the fire at Chapel Pond.  Whether Frances and her family, who had become quite familiar with the army troops camping nearby, were in the same party as Weston we will never know, but Frances’ youthful depiction is even more dramatic:

There was one part of it which we had not seen recently, so we started off, after supper, to walk to “Chapel Pond,” which is a little over a mile from camp. The road winds along by the edge of a brook, and steep ridges rise on either side. On our left, the ridge was clearly outlined against a sky lighted up by a bright glow, which, except for the tremendous blackness of the night, would have seemed almost like an unusually golden sunset. On our right, the ridge was topped with bright flames, which were near enough for us to see trees catch fire, become red-hot, and topple over only to make new fires by scattering their burning pieces. It seems inconceivably inhuman when I think of the way we hardly looked at this sight which, at any other time in our lives, would have filled us with wonder and terror.

We walked on till we came to the pond, and I shall never forget the scene we saw there. The pond lies between the road and the ridge, which is so steep that it is not covered entirely with trees. But every tree, on that high, rocky bank of the pond, was ablaze, and every blaze was reflected in the dark water below. The roar, which we had been able to hear at the distance of a mile and a half, was terrifying when heard near to. We stood and gasped. What else could we do? Tree after tree toppled down the slope, and the burning branches were shattered into thousands of pieces, and bounced down the rocks, shedding sparks as they went. “You should have been here a minute ago,” someone said to us, “when a whole slice of the cliff broke off, and slid into the lake covered with burning trees!” Extraordinary as this tale was, it hardly astounded us, for we could have believed anything.

Weston’s account tells what happened next.   The fire proceeded along the section of Giant that had burned in 1903.  But then

When the fire passed Giant’s Nubble and reached virgin timber at about Noon on the third day it took on an explosive fury, as if vast quantities of kerosene had been dumped on it.  The roar of the wind that its heat generated was trebled.

The troops were sent back up Giant to set a new fire line, to no avail.  Matters were becoming desperate.  Once again, as in 1903, residents of Keene Valley prepared to evacuate.  St. Huberts and the Ausable Club were sitting ducks in the face of the prevailing winds.

The troops readied to move their tent city to safer ground.  Frances writes:

For the first time we heard that, on a certain Tuesday night, the fire had come so near the soldiers’ camp that, in the darkest part of the night; the officers had been able to read by the light of the forest fire, and that the soldiers were all prepared to move to a new camp farther from the flames.

Putnam Camp sat right in the fire’s sights.  As Frances recounts, destruction seemed imminent:

We turned homeward, fairly weak with excitement, and, on our way, we looked up at the ridges again. The glow was no longer there, but the fire had reached the top of the slope, and one huge flame was being swept swiftly along by the wind. We knew all too well that it was going straight toward Camp, and that there was almost nothing to stop it. That night more than one person in Camp packed his clothes and was ready to move. That night, also, two of the men sat up, watching, and at one o’clock seriously consulted as to whether they should call us all to leave our bungalows.

The next morning dawned with a sense of resignation.  But just as had happened ten years before, weather came to the rescue at the last minute.  Rains started to pour, then became drenching. In Frances’ words:

…Nature had, at last, taken it into her own hands, and, the next day, six inches of rain drowned the fire out.

The danger had passed and indeed it has remained that way ever since.  There has been no comparable fire in the Adirondacks in a century, thanks to the reforms that greatly improved both fire prevention and the tools to fight fires.  But the damage was lasting.  Today we have the good fortune to be able to look back at a century of healing, but consider for a moment the perspective of a contemporary of the fire.  This time it is Marian Putnam, Frances’ mother:

At the beginning of the fourth week of September the rain fell in torrents, quenching the fires which all the hard work of the soldiers had failed to put out; but the noble trees and beautiful stretches of woods that had been destroyed were gone, never again to gladden our eyes. Perhaps our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will see new forests on the bare sides of Round Mountain and parts of Noonmark and Giant, but they are lost to us.

It is well that we mark this hundredth anniversary, for its effects still define the soil, woods and views on Giant, Round, Rocky Peak Ridge and perhaps most dramatically Noonmark, whose open final ascent and summit is a lasting legacy of an inferno that almost consumed the Keene Valley whole.

And let us mark as well the beautiful and poignant voice of a young woman so full of life.  Sadly, Frances Putnam, sickly all of her short life, passed away just two months after chronicling the great fire of 1913.

Photo: Putnam Camp visitors navigating burned slash after the 1913 fire.  Photo courtesy of the Putnam Camp Archives.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

3 Responses

  1. scott says:

    Great article. I didn’t know about a fire in 1913. Did the Putnam archives have any photos or references to Forest Rangers of that era? This fire is interesting to me because the states “Fire Patrolmen” were reorganized into “Forest Rangers” in 1912,so this would have been the first major fire under the new system.

  2. Phil Brown says:

    Bob Marshall thought the view from Rocky Peak Ridge was among the worst of the High Peaks, because of the devastation caused by the fires. Hikers today have a very different opinion.

    Do you know if Chapel Pond Slab was bare slab before the fire .. or did the fire make it bare?

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